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  • The Missing Signifier: Re-presenting Radio Broadcasting in New Yorker Cartoons, 1925-45
  • Randall Patnode (bio)

In March of 1925, a month after its debut issue, the New Yorker published its first cartoon about radio. Eldon Kelley's drawing shows an attractive woman in a wispy thin negligee reclining on a divan. She stylishly displays a long cigarette holder crimped between two fingers. On the wall behind her are pictures of three of her paramours. As were many other Americans of the time—sophisticated and uncouth alike—she is listening to the radio. Her ear is turned toward a large, S-shaped cone speaker that likely emits a tinny sound. At the time this cartoon appeared, more than ten percent of American households had acquired radio receivers, and the radio audience was growing like nothing anyone had ever seen. 1

What sort of radio program might a reclining damsel listen to? Not "Amos 'n' Andy," "The Shadow," or "Fibber McGee and Molly." The Golden Age of radio programs had yet to arrive. Orchestra music was common radio fare in the twenties, as were lectures on literature and home economics. There was also jazz, the risqué music that offended the sensibilities of America's moral leaders and yet enthralled the masses. But, no, the woman is having none of those because Kelley's cartoon is not intended to be merely descriptive or typical. Rather, it is engaging in ironic observation. Kelley, along with dozens of other New Yorker writers and illustrators who teamed up to create the cartoons that became the signature element of the magazine, was wryly commenting on the audacious new communication technology that had captured the attention of the American public. This sort of commentary was tricky business, as the New Yorker's founding editor Harold Ross knew. Polemics had their place, but his new magazine was to woo its audience with wit, irony, and humor.

With this in mind, then, Kelley reached for contradiction rather than correspondence. As the cartoon's caption reveals, the woman has tuned to a program that does not fit her age, character, or station in life. She is listening to a children's bedtime story, one of the early staples of radio programming. "Oh look!" says the radio narrator in the [End Page 164] cartoon. "The bunny brings the Easter eggs!" 2 The joke rests upon a double-entendre; the radio announcer's bedtime reference is intended for innocent children, not for this experienced lady of the evening who regards bedtime as something altogether different. But radio, as Kelley was pointing out, reached a broad and unknown audience. Broadcasters could not modulate their content for particular audiences, as speakers had done in the age of interpersonal communication. This cartoon, and dozens of others over the next decades, pointed to a contradiction: while radio's boosters praised the new technology for its ability to speak to its audience as an intimate friend, it was widely acknowledged that radio's beacon was in fact indiscriminate, sending out the same message to thousands of listeners at once. No one—certainly not the broadcasters—could predict with certainty who—strumpet or street urchin—might tune in to a given message and what kind of meaning the listener might take from that message.

Radio permitted the ambiguity typified by the Easter radio cartoon because it was exclusively auditory. As aficionados would later declare, radio was a "theater of the mind," relying on the imaginations of the audience members to create mental tableaux. The voices that came from afar through the wooden box were rendered so richly and accurately as to create verisimilitude. But radio's representations lacked one important feature: visual input. It was this missing element, the visual signifier, that the New Yorker, itself a visual medium, seized on in reflecting back to the public the amazing, curious, and amusing world of radio broadcasting. With the cartoonists filling in the blanks, the older visual medium of print played an essential role in situating the newer aural medium of radio in society.

The goal of this article is to use the unique perspective of the New Yorker cartoonists to examine the dissonance that arose in the clash...


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pp. 164-179
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